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Baraboo photo exhibit captures big picture

December 5, 2018

You may not have heard of Eric Oxendorf, but the names on his resume should ring a bell.

The Baraboo photographer’s work is part of the Smithsonian’s collection. He spent a summer working with Ansel Adams. He tested film for Kodak. One of his images appeared in the opening credits of the 1990s TV series “Picket Fences,” set in Rome, Wisconsin.

Starting Tuesday, photo fans can check out Oxendorf’s work in a monthlong exhibit at the Al. Ringling Theatre gallery.

“I read his resume and said, ‘Wow,’” said Carol Kratochwill, an ART Friends board member who runs the gallery. “I think we’re fortunate to have someone who has traveled as extensively as he has.”

The exhibit features large-format color and black-and-white prints made near the start of Oxendorf’s career. He supported himself shooting architecture photos for corporate clients, but the pictures on display are artistic pieces he shot apart from his commissions.

“This is my own work,” he said. “This is my own inner self.”

Oxendorf downplays his association with big names like Kodak, Adams and the Smithsonian. The 71-year-old attributes his wide-ranging resume — which includes illustrating six children’s books and releasing two of his own — to longevity.

“That’s not my purpose,” he said of brushes with fame. “It just happens when you get old.”

Developing early

The Milwaukee native got his start in photography as kid, when he got his first camera. “It just seemed natural,” Oxendorf said. He continued to enjoy his hobby, on a limited basis, while serving four tours in Vietnam as part of a U.S. Navy helicopter squadron. When his service ended, Oxendorf enrolled in Layton School of Art in Milwaukee with plans to become a professional photographer.

“I found this incredible avenue to happiness,” he said.

Oxendorf’s teachers connected him with the renowned nature photographer Adams. Oxendorf spent the summer of 1979 living in a tent at Yosemite National Park. Adams taught him the finer points of darkroom processing, using chemicals and time to achieve desired effects.

“A lightbulb came on, and I saw how you can take the views of our planet and expand them with chemicals,” Oxendorf said.

After graduation he spent a year working as a staff photographer for a Milwaukee hospital, earning enough money to pay off his school debt and open a studio downtown.

“I did anything but weddings,” he said. “That’s my rule.”

Oxendorf found himself drawn to shooting buildings, as the linear and orderly nature of their architecture appealed to him. After reaching out to architects around the country, he found plenty in need of photos to illustrate job bids and contest entries. Over the years clients have included the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch and Harley-Davidson.

“You don’t want to be a starving artist,” Oxendorf said. “This made me happy.”

He began taking an archival approach to his work, documenting landmarks before they could disappear. Oxendorf has photographed every state capitol and published a book of those images. “I want my images to last. It’s the only thing I’ve got to leave on the planet,” he said.

Oxendorf and his wife Mary bought a farmhouse off Highway 12 in Baraboo three years ago. He got in touch with Kratochwill after visiting the theater and its gallery.

Unlike many of the gallery’s featured artists, who are presenting an exhibit for the first time, Oxendorf has showcased his work 14 times at colleges, galleries and art museums, including the Smithsonian’s National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. All 17 images on display locally are signed limited editions available for purchase.

The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. A reception is set for Sunday.

“I’m so excited for people to see his work,” Kratochwill said.

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